How can we care for ourselves and feel emotionally strong while remaining aware and acting compassionately in the face of other people’s suffering? This is an especially complicated question in unsettled times. Over the past years, we have collectively been through significant social upheaval in the face of the #metoo movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter social justice movement.
Psychologist Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology is a preeminent researcher and speaker in a field of psychology called Self-Compassion. Neff has written numerous academic articles, book chapters, books and created a popular workshop series on the subject of Self-Compassion. She believes that the practice offers guidance in both accepting difficult circumstances and taking positive actions in the context of those difficult circumstances. Neff and colleague Chris Germer developed the notion of the “Yin and Yang” of Self-Compassion, based on the ancient Chinese concepts of yin, a more passive, internal energy and yang, an active, more outwardly-focused energy.
“The yin is a more tender, gentle aspect of compassion, and it helps us to care for ourselves and feel safe enough to look at ourselves, for instance, to look at our own implicit biases, which can be scary,” says Neff. “The yang is more about action, a connection to humanity and the desire to alleviate suffering and make change.” According to Neff and Germer’s work, the two aspects of compassion are interconnected as the yin helps us to cultivate self-kindness and allows us to become more mindful and open in coping with both our personal and our common suffering. Then, because of mindfulness and self-care, we are less defensive and are more able to face difficult truths. In other words, we are willing to rock the boat when the boat needs to be rocked.
Neff offers seven beginning steps for those who are new to the practice of Self-Compassion, entry points for self-kindness and nurturing in difficult times. This approach, she says, prepares us to take an active stance in supporting and protecting others when facing the pandemic and social justice issues.
1) Be present with difficult emotions. Just being alone with ourselves for an extended period usually brings up challenging emotions. Instead of avoiding these difficult feelings, label what you’re feeling and mindfully accept that the moment is painful. This gives you the opportunity to respond with compassion. Just by acknowledging your feelings, you are practicing self-compassion.
2) Spend time doing activities you enjoy. You don’t need to practice meditation to experience self-compassion. By simply asking yourself, “How do I care for myself already?” you are practicing self-compassion. Taking it a step further and doing something nice for yourself is even better. You can listen to music, dance to your favorite song, read a book, video chat with friends and loved ones, or play games with family members.
3) Honor your core values in new ways. The usual ways that you find meaning in life are likely to be interrupted by social distancing, but that doesn’t mean that you have to let go of your core values. If you found meaning by providing financially for your family, you can practice supporting your family emotionally until you return to work. If you enjoyed meeting with friends, you can still meet with them online and demonstrate interest and understanding. Remaining connected to your core values and finding ways to stay true to them are acts of self-care.
4) Practice grounding yourself when you feel overwhelmed. The practice of grounding yourself anchors your awareness in the present moment. The current circumstances can be re-traumatizing for some people. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be helpful to focus your awareness on the sensations of your feet on the floor. By redirecting your attention away from your thoughts, you will begin to feel more settled.
5) Engage your senses. Fortunately, joy is attainable if you give yourself permission to enjoy the simple things you do have. Savoring a delicious meal or taking yourself on a Sense and Savor Walk in the fresh air are good ways to engage your senses. The Sense and Savor Walk involves letting yourself fully enjoy and take in your surroundings — like the smell of a flower, bird sounds or the bark of a tree. Seeing the world through fresh eyes can change your perspective.
6) Give yourself a hug. You are less likely to receive physical expressions of kindness when you’re in self-quarantine, but you can still comfort yourself as you would a good friend. Don’t be shy about offering yourself a warm hug or pat on your arm when you need it the most. These simple gestures can help reduce your cortisol levels.
7) Practice gratitude. Gratitude is another way of cultivating joy. Noticing the small things that enrich life — clean running water, morning sunlight, a rich cup of coffee — can help spark joy in your day.
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For more on Marin:
- Fighting for Change: How Marin Organized a Protest In Support of Black Lives Matter in Only 4 Days
- Juneteenth: A Brief History Lesson
- The Bravest Warriors Can Be Small
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.com.